Plastic Art
Definition: Sculpture, Ceramics, Goldsmithing.

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Plastic Art: Definition & Meaning

The term "plastic art" - derived from the word "plasticize", meaning "to mould" - describes any art form which involves modelling or moulding in three dimensions. The most common example of the plastic arts is sculpture. This is because sculptors chip, carve, shape or modulate a range of traditional materials, such as marble, granite, sandstone, bone, ivory, wood, and terracotta, as well as contemporary materials such as concrete, aluminium, and foam rubber. Another type of plastic art, in this case using clay, is ceramic pottery, including earthenware, maiolica, raku and stoneware, as well as Chinese porcelain and celadon ware. Yet more types of plastic art include: collage, paper art, and Origami paper folding; metalworking, glass blowing and other forms of glass art, including mosaics; wood-working, as well as contemporary disciplines such as ice sculpture and also sand art.

For important dates in the
development of fine art and
other artforms, see:
History of Art.

For a guide to the origins and
development of 3-D art, including
major achitectural movements,
see: Sculpture History.

For a list of the top 100 3-D artists
(500 BCE - 2009), please see:
Greatest Sculptors.
Irish Sculpture (c.1800-present)

For two essays on sculpture
appreciation, please see:
How to Appreciate Sculpture, and
How to Appreciate Modern Sculpture.

For different types of 3-D
carving/casting, see:
Stone Sculpture
Granite, limestone, sandstone
and other rock-types.
Marble Sculpture
Pentelic, Carrara, Parian marbles.
Wood Carving
Chip carving, relief carving of
softwoods and hardwoods.
Bronze Sculpture
Lost-wax (cire perdue) casting
method and others.

For artworks made out of
salvaged materials, see:
Junk Art.
For painting/sculpture made
by artists outside mainstream,
see: Outsider Art.
For works by mental patients
see: Art Brut.

For an explanation of the
aesthetic issues surrounding
visual art, including the
"plastic" disciplines, see:
Art Definition, Meaning.

For the top 3-D artworks, see:
Greatest Sculptures Ever.

Problems of Definition

It is not clear whether the meaning of plastic arts can be extended to include all forms of three-dimensional art, or just those that have been plasticized or shaped. For example, some authorities appear to include disciplines such as architecture (an applied art), printmaking and film within the general category. If these activities were to be included, they would be anomalies. (See also: Types of Art.)

History of the Plastic Arts

The origins of this category are to be found in the highly primitive prehistoric sculpture of the Acheulian culture of the Lower Paleolithic, exemplified by the humanoid effigy - the Venus of Berekhat Ram (230-700,000 BCE). Examples from the Upper Paleolithic include two famous examples of ivory carving known as the Lion Man of Hohlenstein Stadel (38,000 BCE) and Venus of Hohle Fels (c.38-33,000 BCE) and, as well as the carvings found in the Swabian Jura (c.33,000-30,000 BCE), and the ceramic Venus of Dolni Vestonice (c.25,000 BCE).

Ancient pottery is dominated by East Asia. The world's oldest known example is the Xianrendong Cave Pottery (c.18,000 BCE) from Jiangxi Province, China. Other ancient Chinese pottery includes the sherds found at Yuchanyan Cave (16,000 BCE) in Hunan province. The largest discovery of plastic art ever made is the hoard of terracotta sculpture from the Qin Dynasty known as the Chinese Terracotta Army (c.210 BCE), from Shaanxi province. Created during the era of Qin Dynasty art (221-206 BCE), scholars estimate it took 38 years to make and involved a workforce of 700,000. Another traditional form of plastic art from China, is jade carving: in the Far East, jade is as precious as gold, silver or diamonds.


Clay sculpture - mostly pottery - was widespread throughout early Mediterranean civilizations, including Ancient Greece. Greek pottery featured numerous types such as Geometric Style, Oriental Style, Black-Figure and Red-Figure. The other popular plastic art of Classical Antiquity was sculpture.

Greek sculpture, divided into The Archaic Period (c.650-500 BCE); The Classical Period (c.500-323 BCE); and The Hellenistic Period (c.323-100 BCE), was practised by famous plastic artists like Polykleitos (5th century BCE), Myron (Active 480-444 BCE), Phidias (c.488-431 BCE), Callimachus (Active 432-408 BCE), Skopas (Active 395-350 BCE), Lysippos (c.395-305 BCE), Praxiteles (Active 375-335 BCE), and Leochares (Active 340-320 BCE). Famous works included: Venus de Milo, The Colossus of Rhodes, The Dying Gaul, The Winged Victory of Samothrace, and Laocoon and His Sons.

Roman sculpture is famous for its marble portrait busts as well as historical reliefs (eg. Trajan's Column), as well as copies of Greek originals.

Other forms of plastic art developed during this period (Iron Age) include Celtic metalwork art, such as the Petrie Crown, the Ardagh Chalice, the Derrynaflan Chalice and the later Tara Brooch.

Medieval plastic arts are chiefly exemplified by the religious statues and relief sculpture found in the great Romanesque and Gothic cathedrals of Northern France, Germany and England. Lesser plastic arts of the period included Byzantine mosaics, Mosan metalwork and Venetian glassmaking. All this was followed by Renaissance sculpture and goldsmithing, created by supreme plastic artists like Donatello (1386-1466), Michelangelo (1475-1564). See in particular David by Donatello (1440s) and David by Michelangelo (1504). The next supreme 3-D artist was Giambologna (1529-1608) - see his incredible statue - with its so-called figura serpentinata - entitled Rape of the Sabine Women. After this, came Baroque, Rococo and Neoclassical sculptors.

The 19th century had only one truly great plastic artist, Auguste Rodin (1840-1917), but late 19th century sculptors included a crop of outstanding abstract sculptors such as Constantin Brancusi (1876-1957), Umberto Boccioni (1882-1916), Naum Gabo (Naum Neemia Pevsner) (1890-1977), Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968), Jacques Lipchitz (1891-1973), and Alexander Archipenko (1887-1964). The trend continued during the 20th century with modern plastic artists such as: Salvador Dali (1904-89), Meret Oppenheim (1913-85), FE McWilliam (1909-1992), Jean Arp (1887-1966), Henry Moore (1898-1986) Barbara Hepworth (1903-75), Alexander Calder (1898-1976) and Alberto Giacometti (1901-66).

Post-war innovations in plastic art included the "sculptured wall" assemblages of Louise Nevelson (1899-1988), the felt sculptures of Robert Morris (b.1931); the neon works of Bruce Nauman (b.1941); the kinetic art of Jean Tinguely (1925-1991); the car-sculptures of Cesar (1921-98) and the junk sculptures of Arman (Armand Fernandez) (b.1928). Pop art produced the foam rubber Floor Burger (1962) and Giant Fag-Ends (1967) by Claes Oldenburg (b.1929), and Joe Sofa (1968) by Jonathan De Pas (1932-91), Donato D'Urbino (b.1935) and Paolo Lomazzi (b.1936). Plastic art during the 1960s and 1970s - much of it abstract sculpture - was also represented by Minimalism - see works by Sol LeWitt (b.1928), Donald Judd (1928-1994), and Carl Andre (b.1935).

The 1960s also witnessed a wholly new type of plastic art known as Land Art (Earthworks, or Environmental art), practised by plastic artists like Robert Smithson (1938-73), and Andy Goldsworthy (b.1956). This activity was essentially a reaction against commercial aesthetics.

Postmodernist plastic arts are exemplified by the works of Antony Gormley (b.1950), such as Angel of the North (1994-8), Damien Hirst (b.1965), such as Virgin Mother (2005) and his diamond encrusted skull For the Love of God (2007). Other famous examples of contemporary plastic art include: the monumental steel sculptures of Mark Di Suvero (b.1933), and Richard Serra (b.1939), the photorealist statues of Duane Hanson (b.1925) and the Neo-Pop works of Jeff Koons (b.1955).

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